Cool Calvinists Cuss?

Fools Rush in Where Monkeys Fear to Tread: Taking Aim at Everyone (This is a slightly edited repost from May, 2012)

One recent trend in some calvinistic circles is the use of vulgar and crass language.  It is not uncommon to hear cussing among younger males who are coming to embrace the doctrines of grace.  Popular Calvinist pastors use coarse language in sermons, in tweets, on blogs, and in books (some say this is OK because it’s satire or irony).  Sexual terms are used without prudence.  Some calvinistic seminarians even cuss between classes like army privates in the barracks.  In fact, it is “cool” nowadays to be a cussing Calvinist. (Emergents and evangelicals aren’t the only trendy Christians!)  Carl Trueman interacts with cool Calvinists cussing (or cool cussing Calvinists).  This is very much worth reading:

“Why is it that language that would offend most of my non-Christian friends, and that they would regard as a sign of seriously limited vocabulary and deep childishness, is deemed by some in the Reformed world to be, on the contrary, a sign of urbane sophistication and spiritual maturity?  The answer you are likely to receive when you ask is: Christian freedom.  As Christians, we are free to use such language, and doing so therefore shows what a good grasp of the gospel we really have.”

“I disagree.  First, it is clear that New Testament teaching opposes obscene talk, so the argument is fallacious at the outset.  Thus, if objecting to obscene talk is pietistic legalism, then Paul was a pietistic legalist.  But even if we set that aside for the moment, it seems to me that what we are dealing with in this instance is less the matter of Christian freedom and more that of Christian Freudom: an Oedipal [Frueudian] rebellion against older religious practices, often, although not always, those of the parents or early Christian mentors.”

“[In Calvinist circles] legitimate criticism of a legalistic pietism too frequently degenerates into illegitimate rubbishing of appropriate piety.  Thus, the F-bomb and other casual obscenities and profanities have become, for some, the trendy hallmarks of mature Christianity.  Strange to tell, talking like sexually insecure thirteen-year-olds has become the way we Christians show how grown-up we are.  We embrace what the older generation rejected in order to show that we have come of age, and to show the world that, hey, we’re not as weird as we used to be; we can be as rough-and-tumble, as hip, savvy, cool, and gritty as the rest.”

“I even heard of one minister who was proud that his son smoked at fourteen – as if this were some sign of biblical maturity and masculinity.  If one really must judge masculinity, I would suggest that something like rock climbing or surfing or marathon running – something that involves discipline, focus, physical prowess, and skill, and the ability to handle risk and/or pain – might be somewhat more impressive than smoking a cigar.”

I believe Trueman is exactly right.  Cussing isn’t cool, it’s immature and childish.  I don’t think that a Calvinist who cusses just to cuss is a consistent Calvinist (solid Calvinism includes godliness and piety). In Trueman’s words, “Let’s not trivialize the gospel by equating spiritual maturity with silliness and swearing. …Real Christian freedom [has] more to do with service of others than self-indulgence in any area of my life.”  Godliness, holiness, Christian maturity, and sanctification do not include swearing, coarse language, and cussing, but do include serving, comforting, and caring words.

Furthermore, cussing is not a matter of Christian freedom – it is sinful, as Truman noted:  Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up (Eph. 4:29).  Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving (Eph. 5:4; cf. James 3:4-6).  The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom, but the perverse tongue will be cut off (Prov. 10:31; cf Prov. 12:18-19).  Foul language is something Christians need to fight against and “put off;” it is a matter of mortification: Put away…obscene talk from your mouth (Col. 3:5).  There’s no excuse to use swear words, sexually explicit language, or vulgar speech.

All “cussing Calvinists” (pastors and seminary students especially!) need to read chapter six of Carl Trueman’s new book, Fools Rush in Where Monkeys Fear to Tread (where the above quotes can be found).  I’m not claiming to have a perfectly tame tongue (I need to repent too!), but I do believe that Christians who cuss just to cuss need to grow up and become mature Christians.  Calvin himself was pretty clear in his commentary on James 3: “…A cursing tongue is something monstrous, contrary to all nature, and subverts the order everywhere established by God.”

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

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9 comments on “Cool Calvinists Cuss?

  1. cb says:

    An excellent write-up and needful.

  2. Ron says:

    The same argument applies to alcohol and tobacco (ab)use as a marker of spiritual maturity.

  3. Thank you for this. I’m also distressed by how careless Christians are on social media: “liking” posts, etc. which have profanity or questionable content. I’m also shocked at how many Christians use the Lord’s name in vain. That one blows my mind.

    • Thanks, Susan, agreed. I suppose it’s one thing if a little “barnyard” language slips out now and then. But you’re right, it’s far, far worse to take God’s name in vain, since it’s clearly mentioned in the 10 commandments. Christian freedom or liberty never gives a disciple the right to use Lord’s name carelessly.
      Blessings,
      Shane

  4. […] Presbyterian Church and services as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Wis. This article appeared on his blog and is used with […]

  5. Carradee says:

    Do you have a definition for what you mean by “cuss”? Your argument presupposes that cussing is necessarily corrupt or unwholesome, but cuss by definition refers specifically to “offensive” speech (which would include things like “You’re a sinner”), while the Scripture references you quote describe purpose of words rather than parts of speech.

    In both the PCA and OPC, I have both witnessed and experienced so much concern over word choice, while verbal gossip and poison and tearing down are excused and even lauded for being “realistic”—even while ignoring inconvenient details rendering that criticism inappropriate or even outright wrong.

    For example, at one church I attended, a man had gotten divorced. People spoke behind his back about how the ex-wife’s commonly-known public sin meant the man himself must have done X. I’m sure there was more to the divorce than was commonly known, but that gossip was still blaming the man for the ex-wife’s actions, based on something he was assumed to have done—and yet such speech was seen as good and wholesome.

    Expletives cannot be innately corrupt, else saying “Ow!” would be a sin. Playful references to sex can’t be innately corrupt or what is meant by “crude joking”, either, because then there’d be sin in the verbal play and outright graphic imagery in Song of Songs.

    Should words be used with care? Yes. But we should be careful to remember that the real power is in how the words are used, rather than the words themselves. Every word has situations wherein it is warranted and even appropriate. That’s why it’s a word—it has significance both in denotation and connotation.

    Words have multiple meanings, and those meanings aren’t entirely universal.

    • Thanks for the comment, Carradee. By cuss I mean the common dictionary definition: “Another term for curse.” Calling someone a sinner is not cussing. I’m not aware of a context where cussing is good, and I think in the context of my words above, “cussing” is in the same class as vulgar and corrupt language as well as imprudent sexual language.

      Here are some verses to consider: Prov. 4:24 & 8:13b, Col. 4:6, 1 Pet. 3:10, James 1:26 & 4:11a, Titus 3:2, Eph 4:15, among others.

      Thanks,
      Shane

      • Carradee says:

        Perhaps you didn’t see my link*, which referred to the specific meaning of “curse” that pertains to “cuss”: outright means “An offensive word or phrase used to express anger or annoyance”—and note that different people find different words offensive.

        (For example, which of the various words for excrement are offensive and which aren’t? The answer very much depends on your particular subculture. For some, “sinner” is offensive—and the way they define it often differs from the reformed presbyterian tradition, which in my experience is inclined towards using archaic definitions and ignoring modern ones.)

        *Each field has standard dictionaries, based on balance of prescriptiveness vs. descriptiveness. Oxford is the generally accepted dictionary for world English and Merriam-Webster for US English. Specific fields have their own standards, like American Heritage being the default dictionary for psychology and humanities.

        Your references also support my point more than yours—the verses speak of overall motivation and intent behind words. Interpreting them as prohibitive against certain words requires you to assume that those specific words are innately perverse (and unloving), because that transition isn’t actually on the page anywhere.

        I’m not saying you shouldn’t make that assumption. I’m pointing out that the assumption is being made, since we reformed folks tend to like formal logic and leaving such an undefined transition renders your argument logically invalid. I figured you’d want to be aware of that.

        (For readers who aren’t aware, logical validity has no affect on the truth or falseness of a conclusion. A “valid” argument means “if these data points are right, what I say they mean must be right, too.”)

        I’ve personally experienced loving speech from people willing to use expletives as intensifiers, and hateful/vile speech from folks who use all the “right” words. That renders me dubious about the claim that the words themselves are innately bad, though I’m still bothered by the Lord’s name being taken in vain.

        But whatever our conviction on the matter, we should be careful that we don’t conflate the witnessing of a word with sinfully abusing that word, ourselves. Otherwise, we end up blaming ourselves for seeing or hearing something, when we had nothing to do with the word being used.

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